November 2, 2021
  • November 2, 2021

How to write an interesting college essay from a boring prompt

By on November 1, 2021 0

With the deadline for college applications looming, students are scrambling to complete the dreaded personal essay. As a college writing teacher, the years I spent teaching students on the other side of the college admissions process left me thinking about what I might say to prospective students.

Essays come in all shapes and sizes – some are breathtakingly creative, others are poignantly policy-oriented. For me, at least, the best student essays are distinguished by the way they show the nuances and intricacies of how the author thinks.

University essays are difficult to write because they address general issues. But if you take the time to separate the parts that make up the implicit argument of the prompt, you can modify the prompt to suit your needs and curiosities. You could create a question that you would like to answer.

Here’s a prompt: “The lessons we learn from the obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to subsequent success. Share a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did this affect you and what did you learn from this experience? “


Many students might start by listing all of the difficult times they have gone through over the years. But what if you don’t feel like you have anything remarkable to report?

To develop a response, we need to understand what the prompt is asking us to do. At a basic level, the prompt asks us to take the affirmation – “The lessons we learn from the obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to subsequent success” – and provide evidence. But just ticking those stereotypical boxes would be a missed opportunity. Rather than listing experiences that may be related to the prompt, another way to pre-write is to perform surgery on the prompt. We can look for what rhetoricians call a warrant: “a general assumption or principle that ties evidence to claim.” For example, the idea that you have to write a good essay to get into college implies, among other things, that you want to go to college.

Playing with warrants can be fun. For example, an error meme circulating on the internet shows an image of a visibly photoshopped penguin holding two cymbals ready to crash into a sleeping polar bear. The inspirational poster parody says that as obstacles: “We learn from our mistakes” and below in smaller print: “Today you will learn a lot. Of course, the humor of this meme is that the penguin will soon learn the effect of waking a sleeping bear. This lesson, however, will not serve the penguin for long, as waking up a nearby predator leads to serious problems. In this humor, we can spot a mandate: there is an expectation that time will pass between our mistakes and what we learn. In addition, there will be future events in which this new learning can be applied.

The best thing to do with warrants in an argument is to challenge them. What if we don’t learn from obstacles? What if the things we learn now don’t lead to success later? What if they fell into oblivion?

Now it’s your turn: can you think of a time when you didn’t learn from obstacles? What have you learned from the experience of not learning from obstacles? Or, thinking on a broader socio-cultural level: if we don’t always learn from obstacles, then why do educational institutions claim that we can or should learn from obstacles?

The steps are as follows: (1) challenge the warrant and ask why. (2) Use the questions you come up with as a new prompt. (3) Write an essay that answers a question you don’t have an answer to at the start. Write to explore the question and seek answers. One question I asked myself, for example, is “Why is learning from mistakes so fundamental to post-secondary education in the United States?” »Does it still work? Does it ever cause harm?

So before you start writing your response to the prompts, pause to ask them questions. If you find yourself asking a question that you don’t have an answer to and you really would like to have an answer, then dive into it. Start writing freely. Perhaps you will recognize the college essay application process not for what it is, but for what it could be: a chance to explore the habits of the mind that shape your understanding of the world and inspire readers to question their way of thinking.

Heather Klemann is a lecturer in the English department at Yale University.


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